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Spirited Dinner at Feast, Drinks by Jackson Cannon

[NOTE: This is a preview post highlighting an upcoming "Spirited Dinner"at the 2011 Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, taking place July 21, and is is crossposted from the original post at Talesblog.com.]

You know what the worst thing about Tales of the Cocktail is?

Well, other than oppressive heat in New Orleans in July (solution — stay inside and drink!), forgetting to avail yourself of the spit bucket while tasting spirits all day long (ooh, learned that one the hard way) or having two fantastic seminars taking place at the same time and having to decide which one to miss?

It is having TWENTY-FIVE fantastic dinners with amazing mixologists pairing cocktails with amazing chefs’ dishes happening simultaneously, and having to pick ONE. That would be the Spirited Dinner series, in all its glory and intense frustration.

Pick just one from all of these?! Excuse me while I go stand in the corner and tear my hair out.

Many of these dinners look so good that I’m beginning to wonder if the only way to decide is to spin a big wheel, roll dice or perform a series of coin flips. Or … maybe you just need a little nudge in the right direction.

One of the most tantalizing looking menus offered this year is from one what is perhaps the most unique restaurant in New Orleans — Feast. It’s a newcomer to the city, having only just opened in 2010. In fact, the original Houston location only opened in 2008, resulting in immediate accolades and James Beard Award nominations. Chefs Richard Knight and James Silk are from England, and own the restaurant with Silk’s wife Meagan. Their approach is “rustic European fare,” concentrating on beloved and comforting dishes they grew up with in England. The chefs are also strong advocates of “nose-to-tail” cooking, using all parts of the animal (and introducing adventurous New Orleanians to the joys of offal). They round out their menu with historic English dishes and other dishes and influences from around Europe, all bound together by one thing — flavor. Their concentration on only the finest ingredients, locally grown, and only animals from small farms and never from factory or industrial farm sources combined with the fact that they’re really great cooks brings us superlatively delicious food.

They were so taken by New Orleans that James and Meagan moved to the city to open another branch of Feast, and all of them commute back and forth between the two restaurants. I think Feast is a terrific addition to the food culture of New Orleans

Here are a few examples of a recent meal I had at their Houston location back in February:

Welsh Rarebit at Feast, Houston

Welsh Rarebit, Feast-style. This isn’t your toasted white bread with beery cheese sauce poured on top. The bread was thick, rustic, hand-cut and grilled. The “sauce” was more like a thick paste of cheese and ale and spices, robust and tangy. It was unexpected, and delicious.

Duck Livers in Beef Broth with Mint and Fresh Vegetables at Feast

Duck Livers in Beef Broth with Mint and Fresh Vegetables
, which seems simple enough but offered many layers of flavor. The deep, rich flavor of the livers, the broad beefiness of the broth, crisp-tender vegetables is sort of a large-dice mirepoix and the brightness of the fresh mint and parsley … wow. That’s some soup.

Braised Pork Cheek Pie with Red Chard at Feast

Braised Pork Cheek Pie with Red Chard “Bubble & Squeak.” Oh my. Put any animal’s cheek on a plate and I’ll probably eat it — it’s such a profoundly rich and tender cut of meat, full of flavor.

Blackberry-Pear Crumble with Vanilla Bean Crème Anglaise at Feast

Blackberry-Pear Crumble with Vanilla Bean Crème Anglaise — again, simple but deeply satisfying comfort food, made with perfectly ripe and great quality fruit. And just look at all those vanilla bean specks in the crème anglaise.

You’re not getting any of this at the Spirited Dinner, though, sorry. What you are getting is a true pan-European feast, hopping around the continent and settling down in the comfort of the chefs’ native England. The astounding looking cocktail pairings come from the talented Jackson Cannon of Eastern Standard in Boston, who appears to be outdoing himself this time.

FIRST COURSE

Chilled Almond Soup with Grapes (Spain)
Aperitivo Verano – Soberano brandy, fresh muddled raspberry, Verveine du Velay, Champagne

SECOND COURSE

Scallops St. Jacques: Scallops with a Mushroom Brandy Cream Sauce (France)
Belle Normandie – Breuil Calvados, Granier de Mon pastis, Jackson’s vermouth rouge

THIRD COURSE

Parsley and Pancetta Salad with Grapefruit and Parmesan (Italy)
L’alto Stalone – No. 3 gin, Luxardo maraschino, fresh squeezed grapefruit, Amaro Abano float

FOURTH COURSE

Braised Pork Cheeks with Garlic Rutabaga and Kale (England)
Storm Port Old Fashioned – English Harbor 5 year rum, Curaçao de Curaçao, Luxardo Fernet, orange oil

FIFTH COURSE

English Bread and Butter Pudding (England)
Flip Royal – King’s Ginger, rooibos tea infusion, whole egg, charged water, shaved spices

They’ve hit four of my favorite countries to eat in Europe. (Yes, four — I had nothing but magnificent food and beer in England last year. Can we finally put to death this lingering myth of English food being bad? There are bad cooks everywhere, even in Paris and New Orleans, and well-cooked English food is, as you can see, terrific.)

The soup looks wonderful, as does its accompanying Champagne apéritif, spiked with the relatively rare (in this country) French liqueur Verveine du Velay, an herbal liqueur not unlike Chartreuse although less complex, made with 32 herbs and featuring the citrusy flavor of lemon verbena. Classic Coquilles St. Jacques paired with an apple brandy cocktail scented with anise and what looks to be a housemade sweet vermouth (wow). Chef James starts ramping up the porkiness in the salad course — making him a perfect new New Orleanian, putting pork on your salad — with a gin cocktail that seems to pair beautifully with this salad in a way that could be rather difficult for a wine pairing.

Then … hooray! Our beloved pork cheeks! See, I lied — you are getting pork cheeks. Having had their pork cheeks, I can guarantee this will knock your socks off. The Old Fashioned that Jackson’s serving with it looks perfect, and I want to run home and try to make one right now. Finishing with English bread and butter pudding is just the right touch — it’s the chefs’ own native version of bread pudding, and New Orleanians love bread pudding. This’ll be a different spin on our local version that I suspect will fit in with the Creole versions quite nicely, and if we’re going to have a rich, eggy dessert why not have a rich, eggy cocktail to go along with it?

From my experiences at Feast, I can tell you that this is looking to be one of the more legendary Spirited Dinners ever. I hope this has made your decision easier, so if you’re sufficiently tempted, go for it! The price is $80, a bargain. For reservations please call Feast at (504) 304-6318, but hurry before all the remaining seats are gone!

 

New Year’s Broccoli Soup

Happy New Year! Bonne année! Athbhliain faoi Mhaise Dhaoibh! Feliz Año Nuevo! ‘N all that stuff.

I hope your holidays were happy and fun and safe and indulgent. It’s the latter part that’s kind of the problem for me. I was very, very indulgent during the holidays …

“Hey Chuck, what’d ya do during the holidays?!”

“I got fat!”

Yes, a very unwise step onto the scale after New Year’s Day revealed that the 35 pounds I lost once upon a time have now all returned. It may have taken seven years to do so, but I am now once again the fat motherfrakker I was in January 2004. Sigh.

Some of it isn’t just fried seafood po-boys, of course. If I may quote my friend Erick Castro, who responded thusly to someone who observed that he had developed a beer belly, “That is a WHISKEY belly, and I consider it to be a significant investment!”

Well, one thing we can do to help shave off some of that blubber is to eat a bit more healthily, smaller portions and more green stuff. I came across recipes for a “detox” diet for January in Bon Appetit, some of which looked interesting but it’s an awful lot of work (three meals a day from scratch) for someone who has to work all day, plus a 2-hour roundtrip commute. I did get some good ideas from it and from other sources though, and last night I cobbled together a remarkably delicious soup from a few different recipes plus my own ideas. Wesly responded very positively to it, and with tweaks it can be done with meat, dairy-vegetarian style or even completely vegan.

For convenience I bought two 12-ounce bags of prepared, washed broccoli florets and a 5-ounce bag of washed baby spinach — 6 minutes in the steamer or 2-1/2 minutes each in the microwave. Easy peasy.

I know I’m a pain in the ass about making homemade chicken stock, but I am aware of the realities of time constraints. You can use a good-quality prepared stock — I like Kitchen Basics, which comes in cartons. Swanson’s Low-Sodium version is also pretty good, and a lot better than it used to be. Whatever you use, make sure it’s as low in sodium as possible.

If you want to make it a little less healthy you could use full-fat yogurt or even heavy cream. Vegans, you’re on your own for substituting this one, or you could just leave it out.

If you don’t think you like broccoli, or that it’s smelly (well, it kind of is, when you’re steaming it), fear not — all the other elements in this soup help rein it in, and it’s really delicious. Bright, balanced, very satisfying and really, really good for you. Here’s how I did it.

NEW YEAR’S BROCCOLI SOUP

1-1/2 pounds fresh broccoli florets.
5 ounces fresh spinach.
1 medium red onion, diced.
2 carrots, peeled and grated.
3-5 cloves garlic (to taste), minced.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil.
1 avocado.
1 one-inch piece of fresh ginger, chopped.
4 cups chicken stock or broth, preferably homemade.
6 ounces non-fat yogurt, preferably Greek-style.
Few pinches cumin, to taste.
Few pinches hot smoked Spanish paprika or ground chipotle chile, to taste.
Salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste.
1 to 1-1/2 ounces prosciutto crudo, julienned (optional).

Heat the oil and sauté the onions, carrots and garlic until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Throw in the spinach for the final minute or so and cook until it’s wilted. Meanwhile, steam the broccoli until cooked but still crisp-tender, about 6 minutes.

In a blender or food processor, add the broccoli, onions, carrots, garlic, avocado, ginger and chicken stock, and blend until puréed. Transfer to a pot, stir in the yogurt and season with salt, pepper, cumin and paprika/chipotle to taste.

Serve 1 cup as a side dish or starter, or 2 cups as a whole meal. Optionally, top with julienned prosciutto, diced Spanish chorizo or a small amount of salumi or charcuterie.

YIELD: About 9 cups

Now, time to get my big ass back to the gym. Sigh. The very thought. I need a drink.

 

Spiced Pumpkin Pie Marshmallows

Those of you who’ve been reading this babble for years on end (all nine of you!) may remember my having mentioned The Fat Pack in passing here and there. The Fat Pack consists of some close friends who are mostly if not entirely New Orleans fanatics and food fanatics, especially when it comes to pork, and especially when it comes to bacon. “Make mine bacon-wrapped” is our unofficial motto; the Latin version, “Fac meum lardo involvit” (I think) will be one of the mottos on our personal coat of arms, if Wes and I ever get around to designing one. (The other will be “Bibo ergo sum.”)

The Fat Pack has also had a tradition for many years — Second Thanksgiving. This takes place on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, three days after the official holiday. The primary motivation behind it is to 1) see each other on the holiday weekend, 2) have a massively fattening and indulgent meal, usually fraught with bacon, and which includes 3) no family drama. It’s pretty much always a raging success.

Over the years I’ve also really enjoyed getting different circles of our friends together, and this year was one of the best of those meetups, achieving a critical mass of food and good times that I think will undoubtedly carry on into the future. Our friend Robb, who had met very few of the Fat Pack folk before, came along with us to Second Thanksgiving this year and brought along two dishes that flipped everyone’s lids. Of course, they would have loved him anyway, ’cause he’s a great guy, but those two dishes certainly cemented that love. The first dish he unveiled was a gorgeous from-scratch mac ‘n cheese (oricchiette, to be precise) laden with applewood-smoked bacon … delicious, but almost too easy. Okay, we love bacon, and THANK YOU! … but what else ya got?

Well, what else he had was this, and it blew everyone away.

Robb’s been experimenting with homemade marshmallows recently. If you’ve ever done them, you’ll know that they’re actually pretty easy, and about eleventy million times better than what you get out of the plastic bags from the grocery store. Basically it’s just four ingredients — cold water, gelatin, sugar and corn syrup — plus a pinch of salt and some confectioners’ sugar and potato starch for dusting. Easy peasy. But … there’s a lot you can do with that. You can easily add flavorings, fruit purées … just swap out part of the liquid content (i.e., the water) for the liquid or purée you’re adding, and bloom the gelatin on that as you would if it were just water.

The first batch Robb made were strawberry marshmallows, made from strawberry purée (fresh or frozen, and strained). In addition to the powdered sugar/potato starch dusting on the outside, the original recipe called for freeze-dried strawberries — Robb found a relatively new Trader Joe’s product packaged as a snack — pulverized and resulting strawberry powder added to the sugar and cornstarch mixture. What a perfect touch.

For his next batch, he began thinking along the lines of the holidays. What fall and winter flavors do we like, and what do we like for dessert on Thanksgiving? Pumpkin pie comes to mind immediately, so that became Robb’s next experiment, based upon the strawberry marshmallow recipe he’d found.

The results of that experiment — orange-tinted, squooshy, pumpkiny magic.

The had an amazing pumpkin-spice flavor, and were just as light as any other marshmallow. Delicious as they were right out of hand, when Nettie said, “Hey, let’s stick these on forks and toast them over the gas flame” … well, our heads pretty much exploded at that point. These are great marshmallows, but toast them over an open flame and they’re INSANELY great marshmallows.

Robb was kind enough to share the recipe with us. When you make these at home and boggle your family, make sure you give credit where credit is due!

(Unfortunately, everyone nomnomnommed these marshmallows so quickly that by the time anyone thought to take a picture of them, they were gone, alas.)

SPICED PUMPKIN PIE MARSHMALLOWS
(Recipe adapted by Robb Briggs)

4 envelopes unflavored gelatin
2/3 cups canned pumpkin purée
1-1/4 cups water
3 cups sugar
1-1/4 cups light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt, about
1-1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice (adjust to taste), plus more for dusting
Powdered sugar and potato starch or rice flour for dusting

Line a 9×13 baking pan with aluminum foil (I prefer a pan with sharp corners, so you don’t get rounded corner marshmallows). If you want thinner marshmallows that you can cut with cookie cutters, use a sheet pan. Coat the foil with vegetable oil or non-stick spray. Fit the mixer with the whisk attachment.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the pumpkin puree and 1/2 cup of the water. Sprinkle the gelatin over this mixture to bloom, or soften. (I actually mix the gelatin in, it seems to work better for me.)

In a heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, remaining 3/4 cup water and salt. Bring to a boil and cook until it reaches the soft-ball stage (234-240°F).

With the mixer at full speed, pour all of the hot syrup slowly down the side of the bowl. Be careful as the mixture is very liquid and hot at this point and some may splash out — use a splash guard if you have one. Whip until the mixture is very fluffy and stiff, about 8-10 minutes. Lower the speed and add the pumpkin pie spice, and let it run for a few seconds, until the spice is fully mixed in. Pour mixture into the foil-lined pan and smooth with an oiled offset spatula. Allow the mixture to sit, uncovered at room temp for 10 to 12 hours.

Mix equal parts powdered sugar and potato starch (about 1/3 cup of each), and add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice, and sift generously over the rested marshmallow slab. Turn it out onto a cutting board or counter, peel off foil and dust with more sugar/starch mixture. Slice with a thin-bladed oiled knife or oiled cookie cutters or a pizza cutter. Dip all cut edges in sugar/starch mixture and shake off excess. Marshmallows will keep several weeks at room temperature in an air-tight container.

P.S. — Before the year is out, I’ll have made boozy marshmallows. Stay tuned.

 

I’ll have me a po-boy

Of course, today is the day to talk about food, especially when the average plate of Thanksgiving feasting that you’ll be holding in your hands today will weigh in at 3,500 calories … and that’s not counting dessert.

I’m home in New Orleans for Thanksgiving (and a Saints game), and for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. (Happy Anniversary, Mom & Dad!) I’m hoping that on the spare day I have before I fly back I’ll be able to get me a po-boy. I haven’t had a proper one in months, and I’m jonesin’.

A week ago Sunday was the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival, a madhouse of over 40,000 people crammed onto Oak Street to celebrate one of the national dishes of our beloved city-state. Some locals groused about the crowds, preferring to get their po-boys at actual po-boy shops during the other 364 days of the year, but it looked like quite a party.

“CBS Sunday Morning” did a terrific report on the festival, and on our love for the Emperor of All Sandwiches.



The winners of the festival all looked terrific, and none of them was one of the classic po-boy joints like Parkway, Domilise’s, Johnny’s or even the more recent upstarts like Mahony’s. I’d love to track all these sandwiches down (the lobster po-boy will be on the menu at GW Fins soon) although unfortunately I won’t be able to during the one extra day I’ll have at home, sigh. I’m trying not to drool just reading this list — it’s great to see the art of the po-boy being elevated with all this creativity. That said, you just can’t beat a hot sausage po-boy.

Best of Show Po-boy: GW Fins’ Fried Lobster tossed in Crystal Hot Sauce Butter
Best Pork Po-boy: Grand Isle Restaurant — Boucherie Po-Boy
Best Specialty Seafood Po-Boy: Grand Isle Restaurant — Smoked Fish Po-Boy
Best Roast Beef Po-Boy: Sammy’s Deli on Elysian Fields — Garlic Stuffed Roast Beef Po-Boy
Best Specialty Non-Seafood Po-Boy: Sammy’s Deli on Elysian Fields -– Fried Chicken, Chisesi Ham and Swiss Cheese Po-Boy
Best Shrimp Po-Boy: Redfish Grill — Grilled Shrimp with Blackened Avocado Po-boy
People’s Choice Award: Coquette Restaurant — Homemade Hot Sausage Po-Boy

 

Creole Cuisine in Los Angeles

Yes indeed, you can get good Louisiana food in Los Angeles, but you have to be careful.

There’s my usual credo (with very few exceptions ever granted), in which I do not patronize a Louisiana restaurant outside of Louisiana unless someone from Louisiana is in the kitchen. Back during the 1980s “Cajun craze” there were a lot of places that switched to or offered menu items labelled as “Cajun” without knowing what the hell they were doing, and putting out a lot of really bad food. Primary among these sinners were the people who thought that Cajun food was regular food encased in red pepper. Then there were those who thought Cajun food came from New Orleans … the litany of offenses goes on and on.

But for years there have been solid, reliable places in L.A., driven by a black Creole community who’ve been out here since the 1940s. Old favorites like Harold and Belle’s (dress up and bring a fat wallet) or Stevie’s Creole Café (former owner of Stevie’s on the Strip, which closed in 2006) in Encino; late, lamented places like Sid’s Cafe (owned by the wonderful Mr. Jase, and almost a second home to me when it was open) and other places that have come and gone.

Apparently, though, another one popped up a couple of years ago, and I didn’t even notice until I got an email from a co-worker which included this appeal:

Click to embiggen

A New Orleans restaurant needed our help? Our help was to go there and eat? Well … I can do that! And so off to New Orleans Vieux Carré Creole Cuisine we went. (4317 Degnan Blvd., LA 90008 in Leimert Park.) The timing couldn’t have been better, either — the day we went was the 5th anniversary of the arrival of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, followed by the failure of the Federal levee and floodwall system, and I needed some New Orleans food in me that day.

Spacious, plenty of New Orleans-local decoration and appropriate music, very friendly and welcoming service … I felt right at home. The place was just shy of half-full on a Sunday afternoon, so they can most certainly use the business (although we may have missed out on the after-church crowd).

Let’s get right to business. Iced tea. I figured I didn’t have to do my usual L.A. move of asking whether the tea was real, regular iced tea or some kind of Tropical PassionBerry Explosion kind of abomination. Nope, real southern iced tea — thumbs up. (They kindly offer both unsweetened and “sweet tea,” the latter of which I usually avoid pretty much anywhere.) Next, the test of mettle of a Louisiana restaurant — the gumbo.

Filé gumbo

Dark roux, very flavorful, although a bit salty for me (I tend to be sensitive to it, however). Plenty of seafood (big chunk of blue crab and shrimp), plus smoked and fresh hot sausage. I didn’t need to add any hot sauce to it, either. All in all a fine gumbo.

Crawfish & Corn Chowder

This is what blew me away in the soup category, though. What the menu describes as their “famous” Crawfish and Corn Chowder came next, and it seems to me that whatever fame it has is more than justified. Thick, rich, lots of crawfish (Louisiana crawfish, I was assured), freshly cut corn, beautifully seasoned. Next time I’m getting a whole bowl of this.

Those of you who may know my taste know how much I love New Orleans’ beloved Creole hot sausage, and especially hot sausage po-boys. If I had to choose a last meal, it’d probably be a hot sausage po-boy with fries, and a big plate of red beans ‘n rice. I didn’t order the red beans — I don’t usually order that dish in a restaurant, because I make it at home all the time and because mine is, well … the best (*cough*cough* … okay, I really should try their red beans next time) — but I had to have a hot sausage po-boy, despite the massive amount of food we’d already ordered.

Hot sausage po-boy

My first question — links or patties? Patties are the way to go for me, but NOVC serves theirs with links. That’s fine, of course! It’s just my personal idiosyncracy, and it depends on the type and style of sausage, and these were hot links, perfectly seasoned and nicely grilled with crisp edges. Then there’s the question of the bread … sigh. It’s nearly impossible to get proper New Orleans po-boy bread out here — Vietnamese baguettes come the closest — even though Leidenheimer’s say they ship nationally. The bread was good, but it was the soft variety. Still, a very solid hot sausage po-boy, probably the only one you can get in Los Angeles that I know of, and for that reason it is to be celebrated. (The fries were good too.)

Next came their featured dish of the day:

Shrimp & Crawfish Étouffée

Shrimp and Crawfish Étouffée, loaded with seafood, big fat shrimp and a ton of crawfish, and easily enough food for two people (I took half mine home and had a wonderful leftover dinner the next night). A marvelous dish, and I’ve heard good things about it at this restaurant, but if anything that day it seemed a touch underseasoned. (I added a few sprinkles of Creole seasoning to my leftovers and that really did the trick.) I suspect that this was just an inconsistency of that day, though, given how well everything else was seasoned, and I’d most certainly order it again.

Stuffed Catfish

Wes got the Stuffed Catfish, beautifully fried and seasoned, and stuffed with a seafood and ham dressing. This is exactly the kind of dish I’d expect to get at Mandina’s back home, even down to the little dish of green beans (just like you get at Mandina’s, if you know what I mean. ;-) )

Desserts were offered, but we were more than stuffed. That will have to wait for next time, when we come back in force with the Fat Pack in tow, and tear our way through as much of that menu as we can (entire dishes ordered “for the table,” as we’re fond of saying). I’d prefer to have at least a couple more visits under my belt before writing an actual review, but we were happy enough eating there, and we want to help them enough as well, that I decided not to wait until I had tried more dishes. (Sheesh, it’s already been six weeks, with me being God Emperor of Procrastination and all.)

If you’re looking for very good, relatively inexpensive Creole food in Los Angeles, this is where you need to go, and go often.

 

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